Post-classical history


The story that ended on the battlefield of Hastings began many years earlier, when the Danes resumed their invasions of England shortly after the accession to the English throne of Æthelred, known ignominiously but not entirely unjustifiably to history as the Unready. Viking raids had become familiar to the English in earlier years, and in a sense had never entirely ceased; but since their defeat by Alfred and his son, Edward the Elder, in the ninth and early tenth centuries and during the triumphant reign of Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan, the Danes established in the north-east of England had gradually settled down into relatively law-abiding citizens. Athelstan’s code of laws had made special provision for the punishment of crimes in their territory (which gradually came to be known – for obvious reasons – as the Danelaw) by Danish, rather than English, custom. Under Athelstan’s immediate successors, such raids as there were seem to have been brief, uncoordinated affairs, designed to procure the maximum return in booty for the least investment in time and risk; during the reign of Edgar, remembered by later generations as a golden age of peace, they seem to have ceased completely. But Edgar died unexpectedly in 975, leaving two sons by successive wives, the elder, Edward, a teenager, and the younger, Æthelred, a child of ten. The character of Edward, despite his later sanctity as Edward the Martyr, appears to have been unattractive and to have boded ill for his future rule; none the less his assassination three years later by a faction supporting Æthelred was carried out in an act of treachery that appalled and sickened a society inured to almost every kind of violence. It would be too much to lay the blame for all that was to follow on the circumstances in which Æthelred began his reign; but there can be little doubt, judging from the contemporary chronicles, that they overshadowed it to an extent from which it never really recovered, and there can be equally little doubt that the temptation offered to the Danes by a wealthy kingdom ruled by a child of thirteen must have been irresistible.

It was not resisted. The first of the new generation of raiders arrived in 980, met only local opposition, ravaged Hampshire, Thanet and Cheshire and departed. More came in 981 and 982, and Devon was invaded in 988. The new Viking settlement of Normandy, established in 911 by a treaty between Charles the Simple of France and the Norwegian Hrolf Ganger (better known to history as Rollo), provided a convenient jumping-off point and refuge for these raiders, and the most notable response to their activities was a treaty in 991, brokered by the Pope, between Æthelred and Rollo’s grandson, Duke Richard I of Normandy, which provided that neither should entertain the other’s enemies. The treaty seems to have been more honoured in the breach than the observance, and it may have been in an attempt to secure a more effective understanding with Normandy that Æthelred in 1001 took as his second wife Emma, sister of Richard II of Normandy, a decision that was to prove fateful to England in future years. In the meantime, the raids continued and intensified. We would probably know little of one of the raids of Olaf Tryggvason, later King of Norway, had it not been the subject of one of the greatest late Old English poems, The Battle of Maldon. Olaf’s herald announced the raiders’ objectives to Byrhtnoth, the elderly ealdormanii of Essex, in what must have been fairly standard terms:

Bold seamen send me to you, and bid me say that you must speedily buy safety with treasure; far better is it for you to buy off this battle with tribute than that we should deal in bitter warfare. We need not destroy each other if you are generous to us; we are ready to establish peace for gold. If you, who are richest here, agree to ransom your people, and to give the seamen goods for truce in accordance with their demands and to accept peace from us, we will go back to our ships with the treasure, return to sea, and keep treaty with you.

Byrhtnoth rejects the raiders’ demands scornfully (‘Too shameful it seems to me that you should go with our treasure unopposed, now that you are come thus far into our land’). Although he held the causeway to the island where the invaders had landed, and could have defended it with not more than three men, he allows the Vikings to cross the Blackwater to the mainland so that they may fight on equal terms. Battle is joined, Byrhtnoth falls, some of his men desert, but his bodyguard fight around his corpse to the death, in accordance with the old Germanic tradition that held it shameful to survive a fallen leader. Many of the features of the battle of Maldon in 991 foreshadow with almost uncanny accuracy the later battle at Hastings.

Byrhtnoth’s action may not have been as rash and quixotic as it seems in retrospect. If he had not allowed the Vikings to cross the causeway to fight, there was a risk that they might have taken to their ships and landed on a less well-defended part of the coast. It was his responsibility to hold them where there was at least an armed force in being to oppose them. If he had lived to give an account of his actions to the king, this might have been his excuse for his defeat. But in the story of the battle, as it has come down to us in the poem, the blame for the defeat is laid squarely on his chivalrous action – his ofermod, or overconfidence, as it is described in the text. In the immediate future, however, the most significant result of the battle of Maldon was that tribute was paid to the raiders within the next four months. How much was paid is not recorded; we do know that by a treaty later in the year 22,000 pounds of gold and silver was paid to Olaf Tryggvason for peace. When he returned in 994, it was in the company of Sweyn Forkbeard, son of Harold Bluetooth, King of Denmark, and with ninety-four warships. A further 16,000 pounds was paid. The next time the tribute amounted to 24,000 pounds. In 1002, in a political misjudgement that alone would have earned Æthelred the title of Unrædor ‘Unready’ (literally, ‘no counsel’, presumably a pun on the king’s name, which means ‘noble counsel’, though there is no evidence that the nickname was used during his lifetime), he ordered the massacre of all the Danes in England on the grounds that he had heard that they were planning to assassinate him. The order was meaningless, because impossible to implement (in the Danelaw, there was virtually no one but Danes and the English with whom they had intermarried), but many were killed, among them Sweyn’s sister Gunnhild who was in England as a hostage. To what extent this influenced Sweyn’s later actions we do not know, but it can hardly have had an emollient effect. In 1003 and 1004 Sweyn, by this time King of Denmark, harried again in England. In 1007 he was paid 36,000 pounds. In 1009 he was back again with the most formidable army yet, and stayed. In 1012, 48,000 pounds was paid to them. The fact that these enormous sums could be raised comparatively quickly – by a tax that came to be known as the Danegeld – is testimony alike to the wealth of the country and to the efficiency of the fiscal system inherited by the king. By 1018, the total paid over since 991 came to a staggering 240,500 pounds, including a final payment of 18,500 pounds in 1018 to recompense the Danish army with which Cnut had conquered England. The figures are so vast that many historians have doubted whether they can be accurate, suggesting that they have been exaggerated by chroniclers. Recent research, however, has tended to vindicate the chroniclers.

The events of these disgraceful years are bitterly and sardonically recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; in 1010 the chronicler writes,

for three months they harried and burned, right into the wild fens. And they burned Thetford and Cambridge and then went southward to the Thames and those who were mounted rode towards the ships and then turned westward to Oxfordshire and thence to Buckinghamshire and so along the Ouse until they came to Bedford and so forth to Tempsford and burned everything wherever they went. Then they went to their ships with their plunder. And when they were dispersing to their ships, then our levies should have gone out again in case they decided to turn inland. Then the levies went home. And when the invaders were in the east, then our levies were in the west, and when they were in the south, then were our levies in the north. Then all the Witan [the king’s Great Council] were called to the king to advise him how the land should be protected; but whatever was advised lasted no longer than a month and finally there was no man who would raise levies, but each fled as far as he could. No shire would any longer help its neighbour.

And all these misfortunes, he adds, befell the English through lack of good counsel, in that tribute was not paid in time, but only after the Danes had done as much harm as they could; ‘and when peace had been made and tribute paid, they went wherever they would and raped and slew our wretched people’. The whole country suffered from a collective loss of morale; Sweyn was accepted as King of England in 1013, and at Christmas King Æthelred followed his wife and his two sons by her into exile in Normandy. He was to return to England and his throne for a brief period after the death of Sweyn in February 1014, on condition that he would rule better than he had done before (an interestingly early constitutional agreement between people and king), and died in London in 1016, leaving his eldest surviving son by his first marriage, King Edmund Ironside, to defend England against Sweyn’s son Cnut. This he did effectively, winning four outright victories before he was betrayed at the battle of Assandun later in the same year. The struggle between Edmund and Cnut ended in a peace treaty and the division of the kingdom between them; but the suspicious death (almost certainly murder) of Edmund in November 1016 left the whole of England in Cnut’s hands.

It has been said that Cnut fought as the son of Sweyn Forkbeard, but ruled as the brother of Edmund Ironside. The chronicler William of Malmesbury reports him as praying at the latter’s tomb at Glastonbury. In one charter of 1018, he includes the words ‘when I, King Cnut, succeeded to the kingdom after King Edmund’. Whatever his feelings for his former enemy, fraternal or otherwise, they did not prevent him from sending the two infant sons of Edmund Ironside out of the country, delivering them to the King of Sweden with, according to some accounts, a request that they should be killed. This the Swedish king apparently felt unable to do but passed the children on to hosts elsewhere. At some stage during their wanderings, one of them died, but the survivor, Edward the Athelingiii, eventually reached the court of Hungary where he grew to manhood, prospered and married. Nor did Cnut hesitate to eliminate the remaining sons of Æthelred by his first marriage. In the meantime, he established his rule over England, and sought to make it more acceptable by sending for Emma, the Norman widow of King Æthelred, and marrying her. Since she was presumably still living in Normandy at this time (though she may have returned with Æthelred in 1014), it seems likely that her remarriage took place with the approval of her brother, the Duke of Normandy. By her, Cnut had one son, Harthacnut, and a daughter; by an earlier, probably handfast marriageiv to an Englishwoman, Ælfgifu of Northampton (with whom he must have continued his relationship since she later appears in the records as co-regent in Norway), he already had two sons, Sweyn and Harold Harefoot, a situation that made future contention almost inevitable. In the short term, he was probably seeking to forestall any Norman attempt at the restoration of one of Emma’s exiled sons by Æthelred by diverting the Duke of Normandy’s attention from his nephews by Æthelred to his nephew by Cnut. In the meantime, he took over the administration of England very much as he inherited it from his predecessors: he recognized its ancient laws, honoured its Church and gave peace to a much-harassed people, largely through the fact that he was able to protect them from the Danish raids that in the recent past had played so large a part in disturbing it. During the years that he ruled England, despite the bloodbath with which he began his reign, he achieved a greater degree of assimilation to and acceptance by the English than the later conqueror was to do. His brother, King Harald of Denmark, had died in 1018 or 1019, leaving Cnut to succeed to the Danish and, later, the Norwegian thrones in addition to the English. His dominions have been dubbed ‘the Empire of the North’; the degree of his acceptance and security in England is best indicated by his ability to leave it to be governed by regents while he secured his position in Denmark and Norway.

What the extensive areas he controlled mainly did for England was to reopen to it the routes for trade and external contact, especially in the Baltic, from which it had been largely cut off during the troubles of Æthelred’s reign. In this his personal choices and priorities made a substantial contribution to the peace and prosperity of England. Whatever his ability as a warrior (he is said to have declined Edmund Ironside’s challenge to personal combat on the grounds that he was much the smaller), his diplomatic skills were clearly of a high order, and he welcomed the possibilities of interaction with the rulers of Europe. Sir Frank Stenton summarizes Cnut’s achievements:

His own conception of his place among sovereigns was expressed to all the world in 1027, when he travelled to Rome in order to attend the coronation of Conrad, the Holy Roman Emperor. In part, his journey was a work of devotion. Rome, to him, was the city of the apostles Peter and Paul, and its bishop was the teacher of kings. Early in his own reign he had received a letter from Pope Benedict VIII, exhorting him to suppress injustice, and to use his strength in the service of peace. In the churches which he visited on the way to Rome he appeared as a penitent. But he was also a statesman, and there is no doubt that he regarded the coronation of an emperor as an appropriate moment for a gesture of respect towards the formidable power which threatened his Jutish frontier. It was also an opportunity for negotiations on behalf of traders and pilgrims from northern lands who had long been aggrieved by the heavy tolls levied at innumerable points on the road to Rome. Before the company dispersed he had secured valuable concessions from the emperor himself, the king of Burgundy, and the other princes through whose territory the great road ran. From the pope he obtained a relaxation of the immoderate charges hitherto imposed on English bishops visiting Rome for their pallia.v

The possibility that he may have aimed to model his rule on that of Alfred suggests itself. Alfred also made pilgrimages to Rome, Alfred also seized the opportunity while he was there to negotiate better terms and conditions for English pilgrims, Alfred also conducted international diplomacy on a scale of which few of his predecessors except Offa of Mercia were capable; and Alfred married his daughter into a European royal family, as Cnut was also later to do.

One minor innovation in particular was to establish itself in England. Cnut, as a king who had come to his throne by conquest rather than by rightful succession or election, perhaps understandably surrounded himself with a bodyguard of formidably efficient professional fighting men who became known as housecarls. Such a force may have been an innovation in England but in Denmark one had probably existed for some time. Cnut’s grandfather, Harold Bluetooth, is said to have established a colony of such men at Jómsborg, at the mouth of the Oder. This was no casual Viking settlement but a body of men bound together by loyalty to the king and to each other and by a code of behaviour designed to promote the wellbeing and honour of the company. Several of the Danish housecarls had appeared in England during Æthelred’s reign and played an active part in affairs during his successor’s. Cnut’s English bodyguard may have been constructed on the same lines as the Jómsborg Vikings (though there is no reference to such a body in his code of laws) and it gradually came to form the core of the English army, paid for by the Danegeld, more properly known as the heregeld or army tax; in many cases individual housecarls were rewarded with land, and the distinction between them and other of the king’s thegns and landowners became imperceptible. The chief duty of the royal housecarls was to guard the king and to provide the first defence of the country in time of war. As time went on, the great lords of Anglo-Saxon England would have employed their own housecarls who would go to war with them; they became the eleventh-century equivalent of the comitatus, the body of retainers described by Tacitus in his Germania, who served their lord in war and defended him to the death. The army that fought at Hastings would have included both royal housecarls and those of the chief landowners who were present at the battle.

The strongest recommendation of Cnut’s reign, as has been remarked, is that his contemporaries found so little to say about it. His comparatively early death in 1035 left the kingdom to the chaos of a disputed inheritance. Neither he nor any of his sons appears to have been physically robust. It is an ironic reflection that, if Cnut had been as healthy and lived as long as Edward the Confessor (there cannot have been more than a few years between them in age), there would never have been a Norman Conquest. It is probable that Cnut had intended his son by Emma to succeed him; but Harthacnut’s absence in Denmark at the time of his father’s death left the way open for his half-brother, Harold Harefoot (Sweyn had predeceased his father), to fill the vacancy, first theoretically as regent until Harthacnut could return, but later as King Harold I. His tenure of the throne was brief; but it included one event that was to produce reverberations as late as 1066.

During Cnut’s relatively peaceful reign, his stepsons Edward and Alfred, Emma’s children by Æthelred, had grown up in Normandy. We know little of their life there. They do not seem, for example, ever to have been granted land or honours in Normandy when they reached adulthood, though their sister was respectably married to the Count of the Vexin. On the occasions when they appear as charter witnesses there, their names generally occur rather insultingly low in the order of precedence. In 1033 William’s father, Duke Robert, assembled a fleet for the purpose, it was said, of assisting the young athelings to regain their inheritance. The fleet lay for some time at Jersey and then sailed for Mont St Michel to attack Brittany instead. It was hardly a convincing gesture of support. On the other hand, they do appear to have been recognized as the rightful heirs of their father, despite their mother’s subsequent marriage to his conqueror and the birth of another son. Emma herself appears to have remembered them only intermittently, at least in public, her main ambitions being centred on her son Harthacnut, a fact that aroused the lasting resentment of her eldest son Edward. In 1036 the younger brother, Alfred the Atheling, returned to England, to visit his mother at Winchester. According to the anonymous author of the life of Emma, he was lured over by a forged letter from Harold Harefoot, written in Emma’s name, asking that one of her sons come to her immediately to discuss how the throne might be Whether this story is true or not, it is unlikely that he was coming simply to make a social call. On the other hand, he does not seem to have arrived in any kind of strength. According to the life of Emma, he brought only a few men. He was intercepted by Godwin, Earl of Wessex and handed over by him to King Harold Harefoot who had Alfred’s men murdered or mutilated and the Atheling himself blinded so savagely that he died of his wounds at Ely.

Blinding was not at that time a very unusual punishment (after 1066 it was, for example, the penalty for poaching one of the royal deer). Like other forms of mutilation common at the time (and promoted by the Church in England as a more merciful fate than death), it was designed to render the victim harmless. None the less in this instance it created consternation. (It may be noted that it is unlikely that so common an act of Dark Age violence would have aroused such surprise or revulsion in other countries; that it did so in England indicates the extent to which a less savage and more law-abiding society had prevailed there.) Harold Harefoot’s motives are perfectly clear; the Atheling posed an obvious threat to his power. Godwin’s motives are less clear. He had voted for Harthacnut’s succession and against Harold after Cnut’s death, and this may have appeared a way to reinstate himself in the king’s good graces. In later years, when he came to trial for his part in the crime, he maintained that in surrendering Alfred to Harold’s men, he was acting under the king’s orders and had not known that the Atheling’s mutilation was intended. Whatever the facts of the case, it shocked the inhabitants of England, most of whom had probably virtually forgotten the Atheling’s existence during the peaceful days of Cnut’s reign. Never was a bloodier deed done in this land since the Danes came, declared the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which recorded the death of ‘the guiltless Atheling’ in a burst of poetry. Whatever Godwin’s motives, his part in the crime permanently stained his name and soured his relations with Alfred’s brother Edward when the latter eventually succeeded to the throne. Not the least of the Norman accusations against Godwin’s son Harold in future years would be the fact that his father had betrayed a prince of the royal house of Wessex who was kin to their duke and was under Norman protection.

If Godwin had hoped to propitiate Harold Harefoot by his betrayal of the Atheling, he might have saved himself the trouble. Within four years Harold was dead, succeeded by his half-brother, Harthacnut, who had been Godwin’s candidate for the throne all along. Harthacnut lasted a bare two years on the throne before dropping dead at a bridal feast, but during his short reign he invited his half-brother, the Atheling Edward, by now the only surviving son of Æthelred, to return to England and (it is assumed) to succeed him. Thus, after a gap of twenty-four years, the direct heir of the royal house of Wessex returned to the English throne.

It is difficult, on the limited evidence available, to assess the character of King Edward fairly. In part, this is due to the atmosphere of piety spread retrospectively over his life by the appellation – which he acquired only after his death – of St Edward the Confessor. What is definitively known of him suggests that his later sainthood may have been no more deserved than the title of ‘the Martyr’ was merited by his uncle Edward, assassinated in 978 for the benefit of his father Æthelred. The only thing we know of his personality is that he seems to have had a tendency to fly into ungovernable rages. The main characteristic that can be deduced from his policies is a determination never to leave England again. The situation in England to which he returned, though clearlypreferable to his former position of impoverished hanger-on at the ducal court in Normandy, cannot have been without difficulty, and it is much to his credit that he negotiated it so successfully that he contrived (though clearly no warrior-king, like his half-brother Edmund Ironside) to die peacefully in his bed after a relatively prosperous reign of twenty-four years. His biography, the Vita Ædwardi Regis, commissioned by his wife, portrays him as an old man, majestic, white-haired and white-bearded, all his thoughts fixed on the next world. He is probably more realistically described by his twentieth-century biographer:

If there is one trait that runs through the whole and can usefully be stressed at the beginning, it is Edward’s ability to survive. Despite an inclination to rashness and inflexibility, he was blessed with a saving caution. And there is a general characteristic which must be held in mind. Edward was never a roi fainéant or a puppet ruler. Although he was neither a wise statesman nor a convincing soldier, he was both belligerent and worldly-wise. He caused most of his enemies to disappear and outlived almost all who had disputed his authority. He was rex piissimus, a fortunate king, blessed by Heaven.vii

Since, however, it was during his reign that the faultlines that were to lead to Hastings became perceptible, we must make some effort to understand him.

He was born in or around 1005, and can therefore have been a child of no more than seven or eight when his mother took him to her native Normandy as an exile. He seems to have made a brief reappearance in England when his father Æthelred was restored to his throne in 1014. Apart from one or two rather half-hearted skirmishes around the coast, he saw no more of England until his return as heir-presumptive to Harthacnut in 1041. Since he was educated from childhood at the Norman court, we may assume that he was bred to arms as no other form of education for a king’s son would have been contemplated there. Whatever his belligerent impulses, he seems never to have put such an education into practical use. There is no credible evidence of his appearance on any battlefield. According to the Scandinavian Flateyjarbók, he fought beside his brother Edmund in 1016 and nearly killed Cnut, but this is a very late fourteenth-century source and cannot be regarded as reliable. Since he could only have been eleven or twelve at the time, this story seems particularly unlikely. Cnut may not have been a great warrior, making up in guile what he lacked in physical prowess, but he cannot have been as feeble as that. Of the personalities who then dominated England he knew nothing. It is improbable that he even spoke much English. If he did, it would certainly have been as a foreigner. In the first few years after his return, he must have had much to learn. One of the things he must have learned very quickly was that, though he enjoyed a substantial reservoir of goodwill in the country as a whole as the last representative of the line of Alfred, in practice he held the throne only through the continuing support of the dominant nobles of the kingdom, and in particular three of them: Siward, Earl of Northumbria; Leofric, Earl of Mercia; and Godwin, Earl of Wessex. All three had originally been appointed by Cnut; all enjoyed considerable power in their own domains. The prospect of asserting his authority over them might well have daunted more forceful men than Edward.

His first conspicuous action, almost as soon as he was crowned, was with the support of all three and revealed much both about Edward’s own character and the reserves of resentment he felt he had to pay off. In company with the three great earls, he rode without warning to Winchester where his mother, Emma, was living, stripped her of all that she owned, ‘untold riches in silver and gold’, and abandoned her there with a bare subsistence. The reason given for this in one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is that in past days she had been very hard towards him, and had done less for him than he had wished before he was king. A more practical reason may have been that she had control of the royal treasury, which was normally kept in Winchester, the old capital of the kingdom. She may have been holding it on behalf of her son Harthacnut, and using it to interfere in matters of state (one version of the Chronicle states that she was holding it ‘against him’). The fact that he was accompanied on his raid by the three most powerful men in the land indicates that there was more than a private grudge here, but a private grudge there must undoubtedly have been, and the fact that it, rather than a perfectly legitimate public reason, is officially recorded in the Chronicle suggests that it must have been widely known. Whatever lay behind his actions, it signalled Emma’s retirement from public life. Her death is recorded in 1051.

In the meantime, Edward had to come to terms with the main men of his new kingdom. Of the three great earls, his most difficult relationship was with Godwin. To begin with, Godwin was on his doorstep. Northumbria was far distant, alien, Danish territory, and Edward would not be the first King of England never to visit it. There is no evidence that his father ever went there, apart from an attack on the Danes in Cumbria in 1000. Siward, a Dane himself, was powerful, but he concerned himself only minimally with the affairs of central government; his chief preoccupations were with his frontier with Scotland and with potential threats from Scandinavia. Mercia, stretching right across the English midlands from Wales to the North Sea, was nearer, but not near enough to demand Edward’s attention on a daily basis; and with Leofric he had no quarrel. Wessex, which included most of the south of England, including London, Winchester and most of the king’s own lands, was unavoidable, and with Godwin he had a very definite quarrel, since he held him responsible for the death of his younger brother Alfred. On the other hand, Godwin seems to have played the greatest part in supporting Edward’s claim to the throne. This was almost certainly not entirely disinterested. Godwin had six sons who needed to be provided with earldoms, and he had daughters, one of whom might prove to be the mother of an heir to the throne. We do not know what arguments were used to persuade Edward that Godwin’s eldest daughter, Edith, would make him a suitable queen. Whatever they were, he did not resist them, and the marriage took place in 1044. To Edith herself, there seem to have been no objections; records describe her as beautiful, accomplished, well-educated and pious. From surviving stories, she also appears to have been humourless, acquisitive and arrogant. None the less, marriage to the daughter of the man whom Edward regarded as responsible for his brother’s death must have been an unwelcome pill to swallow, and the fact that the marriage proved childless raised inevitable speculation.

At the outset of Edward’s reign, the lack of an obvious heir cannot have appeared as a serious problem to anyone. Aged no more than thirty-eight when he succeeded to the throne, he had ample time to provide an heir of his own body, and his wife, who must have been in her early twenties when she married, came of a conspicuously prolific family. The legend of Edward’s vow of lifelong celibacy had its origins later in his reign, and, in due course, did much to strengthen his claims to sanctity; but it is not impossible that, jostled into marriage with the daughter of the man against whom he maintained an unremitting grudge, he hit on this expedient to deny Godwin what he wanted most: a grandson who was heir to the throne. It would have been typical of what can be deduced of his sense of humour.

It was only in 1051 that the cracks in the political façade began to surface. They showed then through an incident that seemed, in its apparent total irrelevance and irrationality, entirely unplanned. Edward’s brother-in-law, Eustace of Boulogne, second husband of his sister Godgifu, came to England on a visit to the king at Gloucester, and, in the words of one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘spoke with him what he would’ and set off home. As he approached Dover, he and his men stopped to eat, and, for no explained reason, put on their armour. In Dover, they attempted to commandeer lodgings by force. One of Eustace’s men wounded a householder when he tried to enter his home against his will and was killed by the outraged townsman. A riot immediately broke out; Eustace and his men slew the townsman on his own hearth and then more than twenty other men throughout the town. The citizens retaliated by killing nineteen of Eustace’s men and wounding as many more. Eustace escaped with his remaining followers and returned to the king at Gloucester where he appears to have given Edward a very one-sided account of the fracas. The king, enraged, sent for Godwin and ordered him to carry war into Dover and punish the town. Godwin refused, being loath, as the Chronicle reports, to harm his own people.

The reports of the incident raise many questions, few of which can be pursued in detail here. Why did Eustace come to talk to his brother-in-law at this particular time? Boulogne was a long-standing ally of England, there might have been good diplomatic reasons for Eustace’s visit, but they are not explained in the sources. Why did Eustace, on his journey home, stop to arm before entering Dover? There was no reason why the townspeople should have been assumed to be hostile until they were provoked. Whatever lay behind it, the consequences were great. Godwin’s refusal to punish the town infuriated the king, who summoned the most important men in the country to Gloucester for a meeting of the Witan, the general council of the kingdom. The coincidence with these events of a rising by the Welsh on the frontier in the earldom of Godwin’s eldest son Sweyn may have been chance or may not. Accusations against Godwin, who had become too powerful too fast, were being made to the king. Robert of Jumièges, the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury (who had managed to insinuate himself into the appointment against Godwin’s candidate, though the latter was supported by the monks of Canterbury), alleged that Godwin was plotting Edward’s death as he had plotted his brother’s. In the meantime, Godwin with his sons Sweyn and Harold were assembling their men at Beverstone in order to go to the king in force to present their case. The northern earls Siward and Leofric, summoned to a meeting of the Witan, arrived with a modest entourage but, finding the south in uproar, sent hastily for reinforcements to support the king. There was then a period of stand-off. The forces confronting each other must have been fairly evenly balanced, but it is noticeable that no one was prepared to strike the first blow or be responsible for tipping the country into civil war. It was realized, says the Chronicle, that this would be great unwisdom, since it would leave the kingdom open to attack by its enemies. This is worth marking as possibly the first recorded instance of all the great men of the kingdom deliberately drawing back from war in the interests of the country at large. The matter was adjourned to a hearing in London in September, to which Godwin and his sons were summoned to defend themselves against accusations of treason.

By the time of the hearing, Edward had, with considerable adroitness, strengthened his position to such an extent that he was able to order Godwin to present himself in court with no more than twelve men to support him; he refused, through Stigand, Bishop of Winchester, to give Godwin hostages for his safety, adding the slightly sinister message that Godwin could have peace and pardon only when he returned to Edward his brother Alfred, alive and well, with all his followers and possessions. Godwin, a pragmatic man if ever there was one, rode to the coast and took ship for Flanders with all his family, except his sons Harold and Leofwine who fled to the Viking kingdom of Dublin. Edward sent Bishop Ealdred in pursuit of Harold and Leofwine, but he could not catch them, ‘or [said the Chronicle] he would not’. All were outlawed. Queen Edith was stripped of her possessions and consigned to the custody of the king’s half-sister, who was Abbess of Wherwell. There are indications that considerable pressure was put on Edward to divorce her, probably by Robert of Jumièges. If there was, he resisted it. It was a wonderful business, says the Chronicle, because Godwin was so exalted that he ruled the king and all England, and his sons were earls and the king’s favourites.

Flanders was a natural refuge for English political exiles. Together with Normandy, it had also proved, over the past century, a convenient jumping-off point for Viking marauders, and an equally convenient place for them to sell the booty they obtained in England. Much of Edward’s foreign policy was designed to neutralize or contain the hostility of the Count of Flanders; the recent marriage of Godwin’s third son, Tostig, to the count’s half-sister can have done as little to reassure Edward as the marriage of William of Normandy to the count’s daughter Matilda at about this time. There were suspicions that William’s choice of Matilda could have been influenced by the fact that she could claim descent from King Alfred through her father. Godwin lay low and waited.

In the meantime, the D Chronicle, the northern version, records an event unnoted by any other sources, English or Norman. Immediately after the outlawing of the Godwin family, it says, Earl William came from beyond the sea with many Frenchmen and was received by the king and then went home again. If William of Normandy did indeed pay a visit to Edward at this time, it is almost incredible that this is not mentioned by the E or C versions of the Chronicle, especially E, which is so closely associated with Canterbury and whose writer must have been much nearer to the scene of action than the author of the D version. However, there are many instances throughout the history of the Chronicle when its silence in a certain year is contradicted by evidence in other sources that recordable events had in fact taken place. This may be one example of an inexplicable silence, and the absence of comment in E and C, therefore, cannot necessarily be taken to mean that William’s visit did not happen. It is, however, even more incredible that it should not have been recorded by the Norman chroniclers, who could have turned it to so much advantage when William needed to bolster his claim to the throne. There are, as will be seen, good reasons for doubting whether the visit ever took place. But either way, there is plenty of evidence that in Godwin’s absence foreigners, particularly Normans, were in the ascendent at court.

In the meantime Godwin was preparing to try his luck in England again. Harold and Leofwine made a preliminary raiding expedition from Dublin to Porlock in summer 1052 and then retreated after harrying Porlock and its environs and provisioning their ships. Godwin left the river Yser on 22 June and arrived off Sandwich, after landing briefly at Dungeness where he received a warm welcome. The king sent out ships to take him but Godwin evaded them and, when a storm blew up, returned to Bruges. The king, in a piece of strategy reminiscent of his father, then decommissioned part of his fleet to save money. A rendezvous between Godwin and his sons was eventually effected in August, and their united fleet sailed along the south coast of Sussex and Kent, carefully refraining from any kind of harrying or pressure of the inhabitants of what had been part of Godwin’s earldom. They did, however, encourage volunteers, and by the time they rounded the North Foreland had assembled a formidable fleet and army, with which they sailed up the Thames as far as Southwark, where Godwin had a large manor and where the Londoners were generally friendly to him. The king had sent out an appeal for troops and ships but the response was slow. On this occasion, Godwin had the advantage in strength and was given passage through London Bridge by the townspeople. Once through, he drew up his ships to encircle the king’s and the two fleets sat and looked at each other.

Godwin sent emissaries to the king to open negotiations, asserting that he had no desire to attack and only sought permission to come before the king and clear himself. Leofric and Siward made it equally clear that they were not prepared to fight Godwin. Civil war could only damage their lands and property, and they may, for all we know, have been as opposed to the idea of foreign domination at court as Godwin clearly was. Robert of Jumièges and his friends read the writing on the wall, as Godwin had done a year earlier. They did not wait for Godwin to meet the king but fled London, killing a number of the townspeople in their haste, sailed from Essex in a clapped-out old ship and made for Normandy; they left behind Robert’s pallium, the symbol of his position as archbishop, in their hurry. Stigand, acting once again as intermediary, arranged the audience with the king, where Godwin and Harold, fully armed, threw themselves at his feet, casting aside their weapons, and asked for leave to clear themselves. Edward, in no position to refuse, listened to Godwin’s case, gave him the kiss of peace and restored to him and his sons (with the exception of Sweyn, whose murder of his cousin Bjorn and abduction and rape of the abbess of Leominster had sent him on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the course of which he died) the earldoms that had been forfeited. His short bid for independence from the Godwins was over. The queen returned from Wilton to which she seems to have been moved from Wherwell and resumed her usual place at the king’s side. Stigand’s diplomatic efforts were rewarded with Robert’s archbishopric of Canterbury, which he continued to hold in plurality with his bishopric of Winchester; this caused great offence in Rome, not so much because Stigand retained Winchester (holding appointments in plurality was deplored but hardly unusual in the eleventh century), but because Robert had been uncanonically superseded. The offence was compounded by the fact that Stigand economically kept Robert’s pallium for his own use.

The king did not have to maintain his appearance of friendship with Godwin for very long. Godwin died in 1053, felled by a stroke at the king’s Easter feast. He was succeeded as Earl of Wessex by his son Harold who thus became the richest and most powerful man in the kingdom. On the death of Siward in 1055, Tostig, Harold’s next brother, received his earldom of Northumbria; Mercia passed to Ælfgar, Leofric’s son, on his father’s death in 1057; and Gyrth, Godwin’s fourth son, succeeded to East Anglia, which had been held successively by Harold and Ælfgar. The possessions of the Godwin family, added together, dwarfed the king’s. On the other hand, Harold’s relationship with the king was much easier than his father’s had been, and it seems clear that Edward gradually came to rely on his strength and ability more and more, to the extent that he is described in the Chronicles as subregulus, under-king. Edward’s relations with Tostig seem to have been even warmer. But there was still no heir, and it was clearly unlikely that Edward and Edith would have a child, still less that he would have reached an age to be able to rule by the time his father died. It may have been the urging of his councillors that persuaded Edward to look elsewhere for a successor, and remember that his half-brother, King Edmund Ironside, had left sons. One of them, Edward the Atheling or Exile, was still living at the court of Hungary, and steps were taken to fetch him home to England as heir-apparent.

There were diplomatic problems over this, caused by wars between Flanders, the German emperor and Hungary. Bishop Ealdred of Worcester was sent with a mission to Cologne in 1054 to seek the help of Emperor Henry III of Germany in contacting the King of Hungary and negotiating for the return of the Atheling. But the diplomatic relations between Germany and Hungary were strained at this time, and, after waiting for a year, Ealdred was obliged to come home without success. The death of Henry III in 1056 made it possible for a second attempt to be made, and it may well have been Earl Harold who made it; his name as witness to a Flemish diploma issued by his brother-in-law, the Count of Flanders on 13 November 1056 is suggestive. The count himself travelled on to Cologne and Regensberg where he spent Christmas; if Harold went with him, it would not have been difficult to contact the Hungarian court from Regensburg. There is no proof that he did so, other than an indication in the Vita Ædwardi that Harold had been travelling on the Continent at about this time, and the fact of his witnessing of the Flemish diploma. Whether through Harold’s persuasions or not, the Atheling did agree to return, though it was not till 1057 that he reached English soil. He brought with him a Hungarian wife, Agatha, his son, Edgar, and two daughters, Margaret and Christina. Within days of landing in London, he died without even seeing his uncle, and was buried in St Paul’s. It was inevitable that there should have been suspicions of foul play, but it is hard to see whom a murder could have benefited. Not the king, certainly, and not the chief men of the kingdom who were desperate for a clear, undoubted heir. If Harold had privately had his sights on the throne at this date (and there is no evidence that he had), it would have been a simple matter for him to prevent the exile’s return or to have him murdered much further from England. Nor had there ever been suspicions of this kind against him, though there had been allegations of the kind against William of Normandy, several of whose opponents met deaths in doubtful circumstances. It is far more probable that the exile died from natural causes; he had undergone a long and dangerous journey, he was a middle-aged man of about forty (elderly by contemporary standards though no older than Harold was to be in 1066), and may well have been in poor health anyway. The Witan was left with his son, Edgar, a child of six.

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